It’s a widely held belief that suicide rates increase over the winter months. But where this belief has come from isn’t entirely clear.
Studies dating back from the 1800s have proven over and over again that deaths by suicide actually increase as we move into spring. But why?
Little has actually been proven, although there are some incredibly compelling theories. One thing seems to be certain, however: suicide rates tend to be higher in the springtime in countries where there is a more obvious change in seasons.
So what does this all mean?
The link between spring and suicide
Experts aren’t entirely sure what the link is. But one commonly held theory is the increase in manic behaviour during springtime. In other words, the warmer weather seems to increase the likelihood of self-destructive behaviour. This theory holds true based on the evidence that bipolar disorder often worsens as spring approaches.
But less commonly held theories are also just as compelling. For instance, think how you feel in the winter compared to the summer. Everything from exercising to socialising with friends, even to things like taking the dog for a walk.
If you’re like the majority of people – regardless of whether you have any psychiatric symptoms or not – then you probably lean towards quiet nights in during the dull and gloomy weather. Keeping up with exercising and seeing friends becomes a little harder and you probably opt for a quick half an hour walk in the cold and rain than the two hour round trip through the woods you’d usually take in the summer.
So you spend the winter months a lot more isolated, in an almost emotional hibernation-like state. But as spring approaches, the pressure of social interaction increases which can increase anxiety and the feeling of social disconnection.
But are there any other theories?
One theory relies more on a scientific approach and revolves around pollen.
Anyone who’s ever known someone or has suffered from hayfever themselves knows all too well what high pollen levels mean. Itchy eyes, runny noses, sneezing and coughing are some of the most common symptoms. But one theory suggests that an increase of pollen can be linked to the increase in suicides.
There has long been an association between mood disorders and inflammation. And the allergic reaction caused by pollen causes inflammation. Studies have shown that injecting animals with inflammatory agents have caused them to care less about themselves as well as proving that treating patients with medications that deliberately increase inflammation has also long been associated with a higher risk of depression and suicide. Therefore, it makes sense that a natural increase in pollen (and subsequently inflammation) could have a similar effect.
One study showed that suicide rates significantly increase in conjunction with pollen levels. Other studies have also shown that depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances are higher in families who suffer inflammation allergies.
Studies dating back decades have long proven that suicides peak in spring. So if we take winter as a baseline, then suicides increase by 20-60% during the spring.
So who’s at risk of suicide?
Thousands of people die every year in the UK from suicide. In 2017 alone, 6,213 suicides were recorded in the UK and Republic of Ireland. That figure means that there is one death by suicide every two hours. And that doesn’t even take into count those who attempt it and are subsequently hospitalised but survive.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 years old. It is considerably higher in men, still accounting for almost three times the amount of suicides than those in women. And for men under 50 in the UK, it is still the biggest cause of death.
One commonly held belief for why suicide is more prevalent in men is the general reluctance of men to open up about their feelings and suicidal thoughts. Toxic masculinity and terms such as “man up” have hit the headlines recently and numerous campaigns have recently been launched encouraging men to talk; that it’s okay not to be okay.
Yet men aged between 40 and 44 are still the highest risk group for suicide.
Other risk factors
Age and gender aren’t the only defining criteria for risk. Other factors also increase someone’s likeliness of being at risk of suicide.
- Drug and/or alcohol misuse
- History of trauma and/or abuse
- Social isolation
- Poor social conditions
- Family breakdown
People with a diagnosed mental health condition are also shown to be at a higher risk of attempting suicide. More than ninety per cent of suicides and suicide attempts have been found to be associated with a psychiatric disorder.
Previous suicide attempts and self-harm behaviour are also indications of particular risk. Up to sixteen per cent of suicide survivors try again within a year of their attempt, with two per cent of subsequent attempts being fatal.
The suicide rate in men aged between 45 and 49 increased by nearly eight per cent during 2017 in the UK and RoI.